In 2015, the summer before my senior year of high school, an armed gunman walked into Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. A total stranger, he was nonetheless invited to join the group’s Bible study. When the parishioners bent their heads to pray, he opened fire, killing nine members of the church. Cynthia. Susie. Ethel. Depayne. Tywanza. Daniel. Sharonda. Myra. Clementa.
The next morning, I watched as my mother and father, just hours after returning from an overseas trip, found out that one of the people who had died was family. Clementa — our cousin, our blood, 42 years old and a South Carolina state senator.
The next few weeks felt like they could be read in any newspaper in the country. I saw our family’s faces on television, in the gas station, in the hair salon, at work. My baby cousins got to meet Obama. I watched them lower Clementa into his grave. I watched as people lined the streets for his funeral procession, watched my mother cry next to her father’s grave, watched my family sweat under the Carolina sun. I watched as the news replayed Clementa’s speeches protesting for Walter Scott, an unarmed man shot by police, just three months prior. I watched them arrest his killer on an easy, bright day and bring him Burger King at the jail.
I was 17, and I had finally realized what the world had been trying to tell me. “Remember this. This is what happens to us. This is what will happen to you.”
I wish I could say that was the last time I watched a dashcam video with bated breath, watched a white man pull his gun with zero thought, watched a black body fall and never get back up. But it wasn’t the last time — far from it.
The rise of technology brought with it a new way to communicate, a new way to organize against a police state insistent on protecting its own. The police could put out a statement, but the public could decide for themselves. If a picture is worth a thousand words, video footage is holy scripture come down from the mountain.
In the past month especially, social media has been inundated with videos of racist scenarios. At best, it’s a deliberate accusation made on a gentle birdwatcher. At worst, it’s the murder of a man, of a woman, of a friend, being broadcast over and over and over again. Black trauma is not new. For centuries, African Americans have been forced to deal with a justice long-delayed and denied. They have toiled and tread and bled for a new day, a new way forward. But the newfound viral fame of black death has made it inescapable.
What happens next: Rallying cries form, people post pictures or sympathies or prayers. The outrage spreads and the petitions start and somewhere along the way, a name becomes more than just a name. But few understand what happens afterward, when people tire of clicking on a video that no longer makes them gasp. What happens when the eyes of a nation move on to the next town, the next cop, the next video?
You are left with the remains of a city, of a family, of a mother or brother or daughter who had the worst moments of their lives broadcast again and again. Their loved one’s last moments have been used in think pieces, Facebook arguments, political rallies, and more. The face of their beloved has been plastered again and again on signs, T-shirts, Facebook walls, until the very sight becomes unimaginable. The promises made in front of cameras, when lights flashed and the eyes of a nation watched, are no more.
For the rest of my life, I will remember my cousin. Time and time again, his likeness will be reshared on social media, on the anniversary of his death, the day his young daughters spoke at the March for Our Lives, and every single time a police officer kills someone. I will watch as he is carved again and again in effigy, as a cartoon, as a watercolor painting with a halo, or with a crown of flowers adorning his head. Every so often, the video of President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” will circulate again, and instead of his face, I will watch as the camera pans over the crowd until it settles on the first five rows of the amphitheater, where I will watch my cousin’s wife cry and, behind her, my mother bow her head under the weight of the day.
And every time I watch, I am afraid the next video will be me, so sure that the next cop or white man I offend will make my highest achievement a viral video. In high school, I refused to be around illegal activity, refused to speed, got panic attacks when cop cars were near, and was paralyzed about what one mistake could mean. Even now, as an adult, I fear what will happen when, not if, my parents are forced to watch another video of their blood spilling on the street. I watch black bodies fall, watch his body taken out of the church, and I am reminded that this world will not be kind to me, that the only right my ancestors’ fight has afforded me, in this age, is a public death.
But even more than my fear of being remembered, I’m scared of being forgotten. For every name that we cry in the streets, there is a name whispered quietly and alone. A name that had no video recording. A name where, after internal review in police departments, the use of force is deemed “acceptable.”
I am not alone. There are innumerable names, innumerable families who must watch their loved ones die again and again. There are teenagers whose viral traffic stops will define the rest of their lives. And with every graphic, violent video of death, there are preteens and children being taught that their prospects will not matter as much as their suspected crime.
I was 14 when I learned this lesson. Emmett Till was 14 when he died, when his mother wept with her boy at her feet, when his broken body laid in an open casket for the world to see. For all the lessons the country might have learned that day, the friends who played with him, who ran with him, who whistled with him learned something different: “Remember. This could still be you.”
With each video, the outrage stays the same, but our response to it grows numb. Seeing death, even through a screen, changes a person’s life forever. So imagine what it is like for the teenagers watching this through their phones, seeing life snuffed out of people’s eyes again and again. Imagine what this does to younger children who become accustomed to seeing bodies fall and people scream with their hands up, to no avail. What does it do to you, to watch a life end and be forced to keep scrolling? We have created a new liturgy that values sight above all else, and in doing so, we are making our quest for freedom that much harder. We have created a living graveyard, a minefield of aggression and pain and visual, violent deaths that we have normalized. I don’t need to see another video of black death to be reminded that a person’s life mattered. And neither do you.
Imagine if the protests that followed George Floyd’s death had happened without a video. Imagine instead the story of a gentle, God-fearing black man being killed under suspicion and raised up by brothers and sisters speaking his name in the streets. Imagine if every time someone died in police custody, we didn’t gather testimony from the cop’s friends about how the officer was a good man. Imagine if it didn’t matter whether she was stealing, if it didn’t matter that he ran, that they reached for a wallet, that he was wearing a hoodie. Imagine if we cared about them all, what the world would look like if we flooded the streets to speak their names every single time there was a name to speak. Imagine what it would be like to truly act like all of their lives mattered.
I cannot act as if I have the answers. Tonight I write in a warm bed, and tomorrow I will wake to see videos of people who have spent the night in jail, college students yanked out their cars, protesters laid bare in front of billy clubs and tear gas. There will be an end. The chants will die down and the barricades will leave the streets, and two months from now I will walk on the same streets that have burned, and I will still be afraid of being remembered.
I do not know what will make my life matter. But I know I cannot let my fear of being remembered for the wrong thing keep me from being remembered for the right reasons.
So I will remember — George and Ahmaud and Sean and Tony and Breonna and Yassin and Eric and Trayvon and Mike, and the ones no one remembers and the ones no one knows and the ones who haven’t died yet and the ones who shouldn’t have, and the thousands of trans sisters and brothers whose murders see empty streets. I remember Clementa. And I hope that after the banners are rolled away and the marching stops and the popularity fades, you remember them too.
This essay is adapted from a post on Medium.
Zoe Christen Jones is a digital journalist, cultural critic, and video producer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Newsweek, Refinery29, and more. Follow her on Twitter here.